Grim Outlook for World Food

"Rarely has World Food Day assumed greater meaning than in present times, as rapidly rising food prices risk increasing the number of hungry in the world," according to the Food And Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The FAO was founded on 16 October 1945, which is observed as World Food Dayin about 150 countries all over the world. The theme this year is World Food Scarcity : The Challenges Of Climate Change And Bioenergy as there is a strong need to expand global awareness to reduce the effect of severe climate patterns on agriculture and the impact of bio fuels on food production.

Global warming and the biofuel boom are threatening to push the number of hungry even higher in times to come. During 2007 alone, around 50 million were added to the ranks of the world's hungry due to rising prices, thus pushing the number of unfed to about 1 billion. The world seems to be further distancing itself from reaching the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger and poverty by 2015. Poor harvests, high oil costs, diversion to biofuels and a rising demand for basic staple crops, especially in fast-growing Asian countries, have been cited as examples for the spiralling food prices which have sparked protests, even riots.

Global wheat prices have more than doubled during the past year due to poor weather conditions in some wheat-producing areas (droughts in Australia and Europe); a shift by farmers to growing crops used in making bio fuels; and speculation by traders. Though India is being touted as one of the world’s hottest economy, nearly 50 percent of the world’s hungry live in it. It is listed as a low income, food deficit country, with about 25 percent of its population subsisting on Rs.12 (US24¢) or less, a day and around 77 percent living on less than $1 a day, according to the latest report of National Commission for Enterprises In The Unorganized Sector.

India does boast of having a burgeoning 350 million strong middle class with improved diets (which was lamented by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and President George Bush to be one of the causes of the global food price crisis. Yet around 35 percent of its population is food insecure, consuming less than 80 percent of the daily minimum requirement and it has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of malnutrition in children below three years of age in the world at about 46 percent.

Today, India faces an agricultural crisis and hunger which are due to not only current high prices of basic staples, but skewed government policies. Rapid economic growth and accompanying shortages have also fuelled prices. State support for agriculture and irrigation has been slashed, price supports reduced and the public distribution system drastically curtailed. While the gross domestic product grew at 8.5 percent in 2006-2007, the growth in agricultural sector was a mere 2.6 percent. Also, marginal land holdings have increased and total cultivated land has decreased, especially as more and more agricultural land is being seized by domestic and international corporations in the form of ‘Special Economic Zones’ for industrialization, as happened in Nandigram and to some extent in Singur.

{mospagebreak}

The results have been disastrous as agricultural growth reduces poverty and hunger much more than urban and industrial development. A spate of 150,000 farmer suicides during the last decade is a rude reminder of the agrarian crisis and the grip of cash-cropping on poor farmers, bolstered by seed and chemical agribusiness. India has belatedly sought to control prices by holding back essential commodities, curbing export of non-premium rice and waiving loans to farmers. Obviously more needs to be done than mere cosmetic changes.

There is an urgent need to improve productivity of dry land farming, as 60 percent of India’s agriculture is rain-dependent, as well as better implementation of the National Rural Employment Program and the Public Distribution System.

The director general of FAO, Dr. Jacques Dious, has called upon governments to pay urgent attention to the needs of agriculture and water management and also increased investment in agriculture. At the Rome Summit held in June, he pointed out that in 2006 the world spent US$1.2 trillion on arms.

"Against that backdrop how can we explain to people of good sense and good faith that it was not possible to find $ 30 billion a year to enable the hungry to enjoy the most fundamental human right to food and thus the right to life," Dious asked. "Yet it has been estimated that there is enough food for all in the world, at least 2,700 calories per person, per day."

But it is the lack of purchasing power more than food shortage due to population explosion and inclement weather conditions that makes so many millions go to bed hungry every day. Hunger is linked to the denial of a living wage to the working poor. It is about denial of land to the landless. It is caused by socioeconomic policies that deny people the right to food. Resources are there to end hunger, but they are exploited by a miniscule few to the detriment of others.

So the real reason for all this hunger and poverty may well be policy and not scarcity; politics and not inevitability. The real culprits are economies that fail to offer everyone opportunities and societies that place economic efficiency above compassion.

As India gloats over its victory in the recently concluded Nuclear Deal and as Ratan Tata and his Nano are hailed as an engineering marvel, let us do something sincere and concrete to put some food inside empty bellies. That would be a truly Indian Miracle.

The author teaches Physics at India's Loreto Convent and has been writing extensively in English and Hindi media. She serves as Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS).